David Geffen: Capitalizing on Talent

"I thought I'd be a success even back in the mailroom at William Morris. It was just inconceivable to me I couldn't win at all."

The mailroom of the William Morris agency in 1964 must have been a sight to behold. Two future tycoons of the media business, Barry Diller and David Geffen, learning the ropes by sorting through stacks of mail and contracts. Diller soon left to join ABC while Geffen rose in the agency before building legendary record labels. I didn’t know much about Geffen except that he sailed around the world on one of the most extravagant yachts, the Rising Sun, and that he had backed investors like Eddie Lampert and Richard Rainwater. Seemed unusual for someone from the music business.

I dug into Geffen’s biography The Operator, How David Geffen Sells the new Hollywood, which calls Geffen “complex and contentious” and a “fiercely devoted friend” as well as a “vindictive bully” who “lashes out … with irrational screaming fits.” Let’s just say the book lived up to the promise.

Geffen initially cooperated with the author before they had a falling out and I guess it’s possible that the book is somewhat biased against him. I also tried to keep in mind that Geffen operated around plenty of other big egos in the music and film industries. Still, he is portrayed as someone who could seamlessly transition from caring to cunning to outright vindictive. A wildly ambitious and creative entrepreneur with a knack for finding and promoting talent. But also, a combative and intimidating hustler who didn’t shy away from bending the truth and who wielded his influence to crush his enemies. In short, a success story right out of From Predators to Icons.

I will share some lessons from his story. I also tweeted out select passages here. Lastly, I just learned that there was a David Geffen documentary on Netflix as well. I will let you know my thoughts after watching.

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